Sunday

First Person Retrospective: Point of View in Larry Watson's Montana 1948

The third person point of view is a reliable lens through which to see a story: transparent, non-distorting, a flexible optical instrument with which to zoom in and out on characters, scenes, and descriptions with minimal distraction to the reader.  And that is the point, isn’t it?  The “vivid, continuous dream” of fiction? 

I sometimes get annoyed with writing that is too focused on “voice.” Such stories can come off more as acts of ventriloquism than acts of narrative, more about demonstrating the writer’s personal virtuosity than about tapping into deep mythological resonance present in the best storytelling. 

As everyone knows, objectivity is impossible for humans to achieve.  At some level, all first person stories must address this issue. Is the narrator reliable?  What stake does the narrator have in the story? Unless it’s handled carefully, the author runs the risk of alienating, confusing, or distracting the reader.  On top of all this, in first person POV the narrative voice and the character’s spoken dialog (if any) must be consistent, or at least related.

The point I’m making is that the first person POV is fraught with danger.

An added danger of a first person retrospective story is that, by definition, it is a memory reported by a participant.  All of us experience this kind of reporting, as listeners, almost every day of the week.  In our minds we have a template; we have an intuitive sense for the limitations of memory, and we know it’s not exact. We know it can only encompass a certain level of detail.  Memory is vague. It tends to round things off. It doesn’t necessarily pay attention to the niceties of scene and dialog; it rarely follows a chronology for very long; and the clarity of its images is often sporadic and fleeting. 

In Montana 1948, the narrator’s father recounts a story about himself and his brother and the Highdogs, which is basically a memory within a memory, or, if you prefer, one first person retrospective story within another. The story is told in general terms, sticking to the facts, and the details are fuzzy:

Cordell and I were on our way somewhere, or back from somewhere, and we cut through the slough.  I guess things were dried out just enough or matted down from a few freezes, but we started finding golf balls in the brush, dozens of them.

The verisimilitude of this memory, at least for this reader, calls into question that of the larger memory embodied by the entire novel. Reading Montana 1948, I was often struck by a disjunction between the narrator’s purported perspective—that of an adult telling a story of his boyhood—and the level of detail he is able to produce. The narrator’s ability to recall the smallest details does not sit well with his frequent disclaimers about his limited perspective, for this reader anyway.  The degree of recall implied by the narrative is an observational power that borders on omniscience.

I suppose this kind of thing is a built-in problem for the first person retrospective POV, and I don’t see any easy solutions.  However, I agree with what E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel (to paraphrase), that anything goes in fiction, as long as you can “bounce” it.   And despite the above problems, I believe Watson does succeed in bouncing it in Montana 1948.   But he runs a risk in doing so, and I think it’s fair to generalize that a first person retrospective POV requires more indulgence on the part of a reader than does a third person past tense POV.   In a third person narrative, there’s no room for confusion: This isn’t memory, this is story.

Given all this, why would you ever use the first person retrospective?  Are there specific problems it resolves?  The answer, I think, is that the first person retrospective allows the narrator latitude to take a step back, and to judge events from the perspective of a different point in time.  Presumably, the intervening years have allowed the narrator to develop some kind of wisdom about the events, which heightens our understanding in crucial ways. 

Thus, in Montana 1948, the narrator can write,

Had I any sensitivity at all I might have recognized that all this talk about wind and dirt and mountains and childhood was my mother’s way of saying she wanted a few moments of purity, a temporary escape from the sordid drama that was playing itself out in her own house.  But I was on the trail of something that would lead me out of childhood.

Is this passage (and others like it) important to the overall goals of the novel?  Absolutely.  Could a third-person narrator get away with this kind of diagnostic judgement of his characters?  Probably not.  What the first person retrospective POV does, in effect, is create a kind of omniscience for the narrator without sacrificing the verisimilitude upon which the story depends. 

In other words, if this novel wants the reader to believe he’s reading a “real” story—a kind of personal memoir, which I believe it does—then “regular” omniscience simply wouldn’t fly.  In this sense, the first person retrospective POV is modern realism’s answer to the omniscience of Tolstoy or Melville.